January 10, 2019

How a Harlem Immigrant Views What’s Happening at the Border

We need to re-examine and redefine ourselves to become that beacon of refuge and light we’ve only been pretending to be for a select few.

By Eric V. Tait, Jr.
Founder and President
EVT Educational Productions, Inc.

The confluence of seemingly random things can sometimes trigger the need to re-examine who we are, where we come from, what we believe and what we really know and understand. Not just about ourselves individually, but, often of greater significance, about our country.

On the eve of the November mid-term elections the President of the United States again revisited the same racist, anti-immigrant diatribe with which he launched his Republican Party presidential campaign three years earlier. With over-wrought, fear-mongering warnings he harangued the electorate inveighing against a “massive” horde- a caravan of brown people replete with Middle-Eastern Terrorists poised to invade the US southern border, take our jobs and assault our women. Press coverage of the several thousand people slowly streaming from various Central American countries toward the US-Mexican Border showed a somewhat different picture: poor, often ill-shod people—many of them women and children—slowly walking northward in hopes of gaining asylum and a better life in the US. Despite the President’s seemingly racially biased pre-election exhortations to his core followers, his political party lost 40 seats and control of the US House of Representatives. Two weeks later the same US President authorized US Troops—possibly illegally sent by him to that southern border—to use lethal force against those “invaders” if and when they tried to cross the Border. By the last week in November we had been treated to the sight of desperate people trying to do just that being indiscriminately tear-gassed: men, women with toddlers, even pregnant women. In a nutshell: a rather ugly, quite dismaying sight. That same week my good friend and journalist-colleague Raymond Peterson sent me a link to a story about the death of one of the last Navajo Code Talkers of WWII at the age of 94. And late on the evening of 30 November news broke that the 41st President of the US, George Herbert Walker Bush, had died, also at the age of 94. 

Definitely an interesting confluence of events in the month of November that worked in sinuous ways within my conscious/unconscious psyche. Especially since as a veteran practicing journalist with a rather unique background and perspective I’ve long considered myself the ultimate insider-outsider “observer” of the foibles and follies of this country. Among those converging “strands of confluence” that triggered re-assessment and realignment of knowledge and understanding: the consummate patriotism of that 94-year old Navajo, emblematic of all those Code Talkers whose native language became the US military’s impenetrable communications code the Japanese could not break and thus helped assure the Allied WWII victory in the Pacific. Navajo leaders reportedly say there are now less than ten of the Code Talkers still alive. Many of them had to “jump through hoops” just to be allowed to “perform their civic duty” for their country. (So too with the Nisei Japanese-American 442nd Infantry Regiment— which became the most highly decorated military unit in US history, the Tuskegee Airmen, and the Harlem Hellfighters of WWI.) 

Tie this Navajo Code Talker’s service and passing to the equally patriotic, love of country WWII Fighter-Pilot deeds and passing of George H. W. Bush, reportedly the youngest Navy Fighter Pilot in that war: a bona fide decorated war hero who continued to serve his country as a dedicated citizen and public political figure (a US Congressman from Texas, US Ambassador to the UN, Director of the CIA, 43rd Vice President of the US and of course our 41st President). But then you must also follow the equally connected threads and sinews: the same George H. W. Bush being rightly lauded for his astute handling of the end of the Cold War- the successful dissolution of the Soviet Union and smooth re-unification of Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall; the swift, timely assembly and leadership of a UN Coalition to stop and repel Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait; and who advocated for “a thousand points of light” in a “kinder, gentler America,” is the same George H. W. Bush whose 1988 bid for the presidency launched the modern era of vicious negative, divisive, race-baiting political campaigning with the infamous “Willie Horton” campaign Ad—a tactic the current occupant of the White House still relies upon quite heavily; the same George H. W. Bush who was fully complicit in the Reagan administration’s Iran-Contra Affair and its cover up (illegally selling missiles to Iran—via Israel—to get funds for the CIA-backed Contra forces fighting the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua) to subvert and defy laws passed by the US Congress terminating funding for those Contras. As stated in the National Security Archive’s 25 November 2011 posting: “Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh continued to consider filing criminal indictments against both Reagan and Bush.” Neither man was indicted, but it should be noted that before he left office, the 41st President of the US pardoned every member of the Reagan administration indicted and convicted for their part in Iran-Contra. One individual had not even come to trial, but was pardoned anyway. Closer to home, for me, and equally negative, was the George H. W. Bush-ordered invasion of Panama in 1989 when at least 3,000 civilians lost their lives so General Manuel Noriega could be “arrested” for aiding, abetting and profiting from the drugs the cartels were funneling into the US. Keep in mind this factoid: folks already knew General Noriega was in bed with those drug runners when the CIA recruited him as an “asset” to primarily aid them in their war against the Sadinistas in Nicaragua. The individual running the CIA at the time: George H. W. Bush.

So those disparate threads and sinews triggered interesting synaptic connections.  One was simply this, as Vice writer Cole Kazdin explained last summer: “Many historians and policy experts are quick to point out that much of the troubles in Central America were created or at least helped by the US’s interference in those countries going back decades. In other words, the foreign policy of the past has profoundly shaped the present immigration crisis.” And there have been similar reports in the New York Times within the past two months. 

But those are basically just reminders of “causal events” I fully understand, having lived through and covered some of them. I was the ABC TV News Foreign Assignment Editor the afternoon of June 20th 1979 when our cameraman, Jack Clark, called with the shocking news that correspondent Bill Stewart had been executed by one of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza’s National Guardsmen. Jack had captured the horrific event on film. Film we smuggled out and shared with CBS, NBC and by extension the international news community. The upshot: The US (Carter Administration) withdrew support for Somoza’s dictatorial regime, which was quickly overthrown by the insurgent, revolutionary Sandinistas

You see where this is going, right? The incoming Reagan Administration abhorred the allegedly “Communist” Sandinistas and did everything in its power— legal and illegal— to thwart and destroy them. Thus we get the CIA-backed Contras, and the subsequent Iran-Contra web of lies, deceit, cover-up, prosecutions and pardons outlined above. And yes, out of that US-caused and/or influenced turmoil and violence in Nicaragua and other similar “adventures” in Central America, we are now “graced” with our current debacle caused by a now militarized southern border, shuttered legal border crossings and a non-existent amnesty policy. We are now graced with a White House occupant threatening to shut down the government if he doesn’t get funding for a “Border Wall” instead of demanding comprehensive immigration reform legislation. We are now graced with stories of seven-year old girls dying of dehydration while in the custody of US Customs Border Protection. This is who we are now?

What, you’re now wondering, do all these intersecting, interwoven people, places, and events have in common and mean to any of us? For me it’s about belonging or not belonging, about inclusion and exclusion, about who is welcomed and who is not, and thus ultimately who we are as a people and a nation. That caravan of Central Americans are brown people. That Navajo Code Talker would be called a “Redskin” by some in this country. Those Nisei Warriors, the Tuskegee Airmen and the Harlem Hellfighters, would be “yellow” and “black” people of color who many residents of this country felt did not “belong.” And as the stoker-of-fear-and-division in the White House fully understands, some still feel this way.

From it’s very beginnings this country has wrestled with this question. Our various attempts at legislating an answer have always been race-based, heavily white/Caucasian Northern European inflected. Asians, Blacks, Browns, the darker-skinned Eastern Europeans, even the country’s Native Americans, were all deemed of lesser worth and not to be truly welcomed into the fabric of the nation’s citizenry. This I observed and analyzed day to day living and growing up in the village of Harlem after my 9th birthday. Yours truly, me, the ultimate insider-outsider: a native born immigrant. Oxymoron? Not really. 

If the late Senator John McCain, a white male from the state of Arizona, born in the Panama Canal Zone was a “native born” son eligible to run for the presidency of the US why not a black kid from Harlem, born in the US hospital, Ancon, Canal Zone, with-ahem—a birth certificate to prove it? Equally “native born,” right? Unfortunately for a number of people, back in June of 1952, in another of those virulently anti-immigrant waves that are reminiscent of the current xenophobic, anti-immigrant crest we seem to be drowning in, the McCarran-Walter Immigration bill was ratified over President Harry Truman’s veto. 

I took great pains and immense personal pleasure in highlighting it’s inhumane, racist, anti-immigrant nature in Our World, Winter 1952: Fear and Frustration, a documentary I produced for a short-lived but outstanding documentary series in 1986, Our World (ABC TV News). It was a horrendous piece of legislation, as Mr. Truman bluntly stated before exercising his veto power:

“it discriminates, deliberately and intentionally, against many of the peoples of the world … The idea behind this discriminatory policy was, to put it baldly, that Americans with English or Irish names were better people and better citizens than Americans with Italian or Greek or Polish names…. Such a concept is utterly unworthy of our traditions and our ideals. It violates the great political doctrine of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” 

It also made citizenship and legal immigration a very murky and highly difficult prospect not just for the darker-hued folks of Southern and Eastern Europe, but also for certain Asians and the black and brown people of Latin America and the Caribbean. This current 21st century wrangling over illegal and legal immigration—the now “back-burnered” Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) struggle and the current fear-mongering about the “Caravan Invasion”—are just another re-visitation of the age-old inclusionary/exclusionary struggle that forever plagues this country.

Mavis, my wise and pro-active mother took no chances with the citizenship of her children. She used her legal immigrant-naturalized citizen status to have us naturalized. Thus, this black kid from Harlem’s unique native born-immigrant status, with birth certificate and naturalization papers to prove it. The ultimate insider-outsider.

In history class I learned this lesson as a high school student: The U.S. Constitution as originally written was a morally flawed document that actually condoned and protected the ownership of human beings by other humans. Not only condoned, but actually supported slavery. 

Fr. Tiffany, my Cardinal Hayes High School American history teacher, imparted in-depth, eye-opening awareness and insights to us in that history class. Among the key ones: the country’s founding document was written to protect and safeguard the rights and property of white, male oligarchs. Fortunately it was written with the foreseen and unforeseen flexibility to eventually make it applicable to everyone, not just those oligarchs. 

Yes, as we are all too well aware, who tells the story, from what perspective—what’s included or left out—is central to who we are as a people and as a society. It is central to a full understanding of the underpinnings and bedrock of that society. Learn and accept the fact that this continent and country have always been a place of and for immigrants. Eons ago the ancestors of the Native American First Peoples migrated from Asia across that Bering Strait land-bridge (“Beringia”) and eventually populated this land mass from North to South. It’s no longer hypothesis. Recent DNA testing has confirmed the Siberian and “Beringinian” origins of these tribes. But later immigrants, whether Vikings and other Europeans—Italians, Dutch, Spaniards, English, or more free and enslaved Africans—whomever, especially into what’s now North America, just added to an ongoing, continuous influx. It has always been a diverse, multicultural land. Of all the works delineating and exploring this, especially as it pertains to the United States, my favorite by far is A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America by the late, and for me, really great, Dr. Ronald Takaki. It’s a must-read to fully understand the root-causes of the racial problems and constantly recurring “exclusionary” immigration tendencies of this country. 

Those flawed Founding Fathers were not exceptions in fomenting these national ills. Yet even as there are still significant anti-immigrant advocates today, there were also “inclusionary” others back then. Men like John Jay and Alexander Hamilton who pushed hard for educating free and enslaved Africans so they too could enjoy the full fruits of freedom and self-government promised by that recently won American Revolutionary War. Note well: from the very beginning, always that exclusionary/inclusionary battle that resurfaces over and over again. 

We need to re-examine and redefine ourselves to become that beacon of refuge and light we’ve only been pretending to be for a select few. We need to take a page from the positive side of George H. W. Bush and seek a “kinder, gentler America” that re-emphasizes what President Harry Truman also stated in his 1952 veto of the McCarran-Walter Immigration Bill: “It denies the humanitarian creed inscribed beneath the Statue of Liberty proclaiming to all nations, ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’ “

Cliché or no, if that’s not who we are now, that’s exactly who and what we need to strive to be.

Originally published by History News Network, 01.06.2019, reprinted with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.